When artificial turf was first introduced in the Houston Astrodome in 1966, it was out of necessity. The stadium, which had opened the previous year, could not keep the field’s bermuda grass from dying. Fortunately, a product was being developed which solved the problem. Synthetic nylon grass was installed, and the rest is history.
Beginning Life as a Novelty
At first, artificial grass was a novelty. No one really took it seriously. For several years, the Astros were known more for their field than their record but baseball executives were paying close attention. They loved how the field looked on television. They heard reports that little maintenance was required and the surface was durable. It could save a lot of money over its lifespan.
Multi-Purpose Stadiums Needed a Durable Surface
Baseball expanded in the early 1970’s, and several new stadiums were built. Many shared a home with the local football team. This meant extra wear on the field, especially between the gridiron hash marks. This was abuse that a grass field would have trouble handling. Many of the new stadiums turned to artificial turf for a solution.
Soon, a handful of ballparks sported synthetic grass. What was once a novelty was now billed as state of the art. After a few seasons, the managers of the teams playing on synthetic grass noticed a trend. The fastest players on their team played better at home on the turf both on offense and defense.
Speed Won Pennants on Turf
The Kansas City Royals were the first to understand the phenomenon after opening Kaufman Stadium in 1973. They realized that playing a different style of baseball allowed their speed to win games on the faster surface of their home stadium. With a few years, they had traded or released their lumbering superstars and upgraded to a fleet roster of base stealers and slap hitters.
The St. Louis Cardinals followed suit almost immediately, and the two rose to the top of their respective divisions, all based on their style of play tailored to artificial turf. The traditional metrics of baseball no longer applied. Home runs and strikeouts were replaced by walks and doubles, and the speedsters were winning.
The Heyday of Speed
Within a decade, baseball had changed. Traditional batting orders loaded with sluggers became filled with set-up specialists. The home run kings, who also struck out often, were no longer valued. On base percentage ruled the day. Steals rose until all of the seemingly unbroken records were surpassed.
For years, baseball followed this path until the stadiums of the era began to be replaced. Nostalgia called for smaller parks and grass fields. The game slowed down, and the rosters reverted to their former emphasis on power hitters and R.B.I.s. But the change has not been total.
The era of artificial turf left the game of baseball with a deep appreciation for speed. Even though the playing surfaces have changed back, the game strategy has not. Managers continue to value a player who can make something happen on the base paths, someone who can draw a walk and turn it into a double with a well-timed steal. Defense remains a priority, and baseball is still more exciting all because the Astros couldn’t grow grass.
Why Astro Turf No Longer Belongs in Baseball, BaseballEssential.com
When it Comes to Grass, Baseball No Longer Fakes It, LaTimes.com